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U-PASS fee hike proposed; $2 increase to $86 per quarter

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U-PASS fee hike proposed; $2 increase to $86 per quarter

Commuting into Seattle can be cumbersome and expensive, but more and more people are choosing to navigate the intricacies of the metro system rather than the skyrocketing housing prices in Seattle.

The student-levied U-PASS fee will rise to $86 per quarter, if a $2 rate increase proposed by the University Transportation Committee is approved.

The U-PASS, which provides all students and participating faculty with rides on numerous local and regional transit systems is currently $84 per quarter. The proposed rate increase would be the first since 2015 when the U-PASS increased from $49 to $84 per quarter. 

According to Matt McKeown, chair of the Universal Student U-PASS Advisory Board, the price hike is precipitated by the ongoing expansion of the Link light rail system and other changes to local transportation services. For example, McKeown said at a public hearing about the rate hike Feb. 18, when the Link expanded to the UW in 2016, ridership increased by 180% from the previous year. Some transit agencies have also raised their fares in the past few years, further increasing the program cost.

According to McKeown, the U-PASS’ greatest expense by far — about 98% of total revenue — is the actual cost of paying for the sheer number of rides taken across all services. When riders tap their Husky Card on public transit such as buses, the full cost of the ride is automatically billed to the UW. 

“[The predicted cost for fares] currently stands at about $16 million,” McKeown said. “A few other costs are projected in there, such as staff wages, some shared services and some shuttles such as NightRide.”

If fares do not increase, he said, U-PASS will find itself at a deficit within two years. Under the memorandum of understanding agreement between the UW and its partner agencies, U-PASS is required to maintain a reserve on hand of one month of total operating costs. The rate increase is designed to allow U-PASS to maintain that reserve in the face of rising costs.

The rate increase, McKeown said, is only expected to provide sufficient funds for one year. The goal, he continued, is to spend the next year looking at ways to bring costs down over the long-term and have next year’s U-PASS Advisory Board revisit a potential rate increase or decrease. 

There are a few ways that the U-PASS Advisory Board has discussed bringing down costs, McKeown said, including asking the UW to increase or otherwise adjust the limit on how much the university can pay for the program’s operating costs.

According to McKeown, the implementation of a student fare could similarly drive down costs across the board. Previous advisory boards, he continued, had “rather unsuccessfully” lobbied for such a fare.

“We would encourage you as students to continue to lobby for a student fare,” the UW Transportation Services director, Anne Eskridge, said. “It's more powerful coming from you all than it is coming from the administration.”

Another method of decreasing the U-PASS costs in the future would be to apply ORCA LIFT rates to qualifying students. ORCA LIFT is a program under which transit fares on all ORCA transit systems are reduced by up to 50% for those who make less than 200% of the federal poverty rate. 


This would require the UW to transition from a system in which the university is billed directly to one where the system identifies students tapping on and whether they qualify for reduced fares.  However, if implemented, the results could be lucrative: a drop to “maybe $50 each,” Eskridge said.

Though many students do not pay U-PASS fees under the Husky Promise scholarship and aid program, the introduction of ORCA LIFT pricing on to those students’ fares could drive down costs for the students whose fees help pay for everyone’s U-PASS. 

“This is a win for everybody, and in my career in higher education, I’ve never seen a win out there like this,” Eskridge said. “It will help the lower-income students, but it’ll help everybody else relative to their income level. And I rarely see a win-win-win across the board. We will need your support in getting this triple crown situation because if we can do that, the price lowers for everyone.” 

Reach reporter Matthew Hipolito at Twitter: @hipolmat

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